24 April 2010
US spacecraft sparks arms race concerns
By Xin Dingding
plane can 'help launch space weapons, be used for anti-satellite purposes'
BEIJING - The latest spacecraft launched by the United States has triggered concerns over a new arms race in space that could jeopardize world peace, Chinese military researchers said on Friday.
The US Air Force launched unmanned spacecraft X-37B with a rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday evening local time, media reported. The spacecraft is designed to fly in low orbit for as long as nine months.
The X-37B looks like a space shuttle orbiter, with a similar shape and payload bay for cargo and experiments. But unlike US space shuttles that can stay in orbit for only about two weeks and are costly to maintain, X-37B can reportedly be used repeatedly with less costs.
The space plane is meant to serve as a test platform for unspecified experiments before gliding to an autonomous runway landing, the US Air Force said.
The US military has only made the general description of the mission objectives of its
latest space launch public - to test of guidance, navigation, control, thermal
protection and autonomous operations in orbit, re-entry and landing, media
However, the ultimate purpose of the X-37B and details about it remain a
23 April 2010
Unmanned military space planes usher in new weaponry era
At Cape Canaveral, Fla., the Air Force went ahead with the long-anticipated maiden flight of the troubled X-37B space plane, which launches vertically into orbit on the back of an Atlas rocket but descends into the atmosphere and lands itself, as the space shuttle does.
The X-37B has been in development for more than 10 years and had "a tumultuous history," said Gary Payton, the Air Force's deputy undersecretary for space programs. "So ... it's great to see the X37 finally get to the launchpad and get into space."
The launch took place just before 8 p.m. EDT, and Mr. Payton said it had not been decided when to bring the vehicle - which can spend up to nine months in orbit - back to Earth.
"We don't know when it's coming back for sure. It depends on the progress that we make with the on-orbit experiments," he said.
Meanwhile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) test launched another space plane - the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), known as the Falcon.
The Falcon is a suborbital vehicle launched on a solid-fuel rocket booster made from a decommissioned ballistic missile. Just outside the atmosphere, the plane separates from the rocket and glides back to Earth at more than 13,000 mph - more than 20 times the speed of sound.
Thursday's 30-minute, 4,100-nautical-mile test flight - which had been scrubbed twice this week because of bad weather - was slated to end with the Falcon crashing into the ocean just north of a U.S. military test site at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.
DARPA's $308 million research program is building two Falcon vehicles, the second of which is scheduled for launch early next year.
Defense analysts say the Falcon is part of the Pentagon's effort to develop the capability to strike anywhere in the world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour - known as Conventional Prompt Global Strike, or CPGS.
CPGS is a new class of weapons that officials hope will address recent threats, such as terrorist nuclear weapons, and help reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons as a strategic option in more conventional conflicts.
DARPA said only that the Falcon program is designed "to create new technological options that enable capabilities that address urgent threats to our national security."
But a statement to The Washington Times from U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of CPGS, said the Falcon will demonstrate key capabilities for the development of this new class of weapons.
Solving the challenges of launching an unmanned vehicle into suborbital space and gliding it down at hypersonic speed to accurately hit a target on Earth "could lead to the deployment of a CPGS capability - an ability to hold emerging threats at risk with a rapid, non-nuclear option," the statement said.
"It is premature to discuss the actual implementation of this capability until the technology has sufficiently matured," the statement concluded.
No one from Strategic Command was available for comment.
The purpose of the X-37B program is less clear, in part because it remains highly classified.
"What does it do? Nobody knows," said John Pike of the Virginia-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org.
He estimated that the program - the actual expense of which is hidden in the Pentagon's "black," or classified, budget - is likely to cost more than $1 billion. The launch vehicle alone - a two-stage, liquid-propelled Atlas V rocket - costs as much as $200 million, Mr. Pike said. Ten years of development on the plane - as the project was shuffled from NASA to DARPA and finally to its current institutional home in the Air Force - is likely to have cost hundreds of millions of dollars more.
Mr. Pike said the Air Force had been determined "for the last half-century" to get plane-type weapons systems into space, even though it was unclear what their purpose would be. "There is a doctrinal imperative for such a vehicle that transcends any describable mission it might have," he said.
Mr. Payton told reporters that the Air Force has "a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better."
22 April 2010
US military launches top-secret robotic spacecraft
by Staff Writers
The robotic space plane, or X-37B, lifted off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V rocket at 7:52 pm local time (2352 GMT), according video released by the military.
"The launch is a go," Air Force Major Angie Blair told AFP.
Resembling a miniature space shuttle, the plane is 8.9 meters (29 feet) long and has a wing-span of 4.5 meters.
The reusable space vehicle has been years in the making and the military has offered only vague explanations as to its purpose or role in the American military's arsenal.
The vehicle is designed to "provide an 'on-orbit laboratory' test environment to prove new technology and components before those technologies are committed to operational satellite programs," the Air Force said in a recent release.
Officials said the X-37B would eventually return for a landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but did not say how long the inaugural mission would last.
"In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back," Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary for Air Force space programs, told reporters in a conference call this week.
Payton said the plane could stay in space for up to nine months.
Flight controllers plan to monitor the vehicle's guidance, navigation and control systems, but the Air Force has declined to discuss what the plane is carrying in its payload or what experiments are scheduled.
Pentagon officials have sidestepped questions about possible military missions for the spacecraft, as well as the precise budget for its development -- estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.
The results of the test flight will inform "development programs that will provide capabilities for our warfighters in the future," Payton said.
The space plane -- manufactured by Boeing -- began as a project of NASA in 1999, and was eventually handed over to the US Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
The Air Force has plans for a second X-37B, scheduled to launch in 2011.
21 April 2010
X-37B military spaceplane launches from Cape Canaveral
By Paul Rincon
The X-37B, which has been likened to a scaled-down space shuttle, blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 1952 EDT (2352 GMT) on Thursday.
The military vehicle is unpiloted and will carry out the first autonomous re-entry and landing in the history of the US space programme.
The spacecraft can return experiments to Earth for inspection and analysis.
At 9m (29ft) long and with a 4.5m (15ft) wingspan, the reusable spaceplane is about one-quarter the size of the shuttle, with a large engine mounted at the rear of the ship for orbit changing.
And while the space shuttle uses a fuel-cell power-system, the military vehicle is powered by a solar array and lithium-ion batteries.
The precise objectives and cost of the programme are secret, but the first few flights will allow officials to evaluate the vehicle's performance and ensure components and systems work the way they are supposed to.
"The top priority technology demonstration on this first flight is the vehicle itself," Gary Payton, the US Air Force's deputy under secretary for space programs, told journalists on a teleconference this week.
"Getting it into orbit, getting the payload bay doors open, the solar array deployed, learning about on-orbit attitude control and bringing it all back."
The X-37B was launched vertically atop an Atlas V rocket. The Air Force (USAF) says the vehicle will be used to test advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics and high temperature structures and seals.
The Pentagon has not specified a duration for this mission, but the X-37B is designed to operate on orbit for up to 270 days: "In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back for sure. It depends on the progress that we make with the on-orbit experiments, the on-orbit demonstrations," said Mr Payton.
Once the mission is complete, a command will be sent from the ground prompting the 5,000kg (11,000lb) spaceplane to fire its engine to re-enter the atmosphere.
It will then autonomously navigate its way to the 4.5km (15,000ft) -long primary runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The X-37B started life in 1999 as a US space agency programme, but Nasa handed the project over to the Pentagon in September 2004. As such, the Air Force is in a position to talk openly about the craft's design, but its purpose remains classified.
Dr Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of national security and decision making at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, said the military would be waiting to see if this project yielded new capabilities: "It might be at this point in time that [the US Air Force is] going to roll the dice and see if something good happens.
"If it does, they'll continue with it. Otherwise, this will be another one of those [experimental] projects that goes into a bin somewhere."
The USAF has requisitioned a second experimental plane from the prime contractor Boeing; this is being targeted for launch sometime in 2011.
Speculation about the craft's purpose has led to accusations that the project could move us a step closer to the weaponisation of space.
Mr Payton responded: "I don't know how this could be called weaponisation of space. It's just an updated version of the space shuttle type of activities in space. We, the Air Force, have a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better."
Dr Johnson-Freese said that one way in which the spaceplane could potentially be used was as a "manoeuvrable satellite".
She said that conventional satellites were vulnerable to missile systems because they followed predictable paths in orbit and were relatively easy to spot. The X-37B could evade attempts to shoot it down with anti-satellite (A-sat) weapons.
And if enemy forces know when spy satellites are due to fly over their territory, they can limit sensitive activities to times when there are no passes by reconnaissance spacecraft. The X-37B could spring a surprise by virtue of its manoeuvrability.
The programme is now led by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (AFRCO).
Edwards Air Force Base, also in California, has been designated as the vehicle's back-up landing facility. The Soviet Union carried out an autonomous re-entry and landing with its Buran space shuttle in 1988.
21 April 2010
Secrecy surrounding space plane fuels speculation
Reported in The Colorado Springs Gazette
from the Los Angeles Times
“Are we looking at a new space vehicle or an orbital bomber that’s capable of attacking from space?” said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a Web site for military policy research. “At this point, it’s hard to say.”
The U.S. Air Force, which has been developing the X-37 pilotless space plane, isn’t saying much. Even the launch has been kept out of the public eye, and only Pentagon-sanctioned photographers can take pictures of the vehicle.
The program isn’t entirely classified. The Air Force revealed that it’s about 29 feet long, or about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels.
It is the latest version of a spacecraft that initially began more than a decade ago as a NASA program to test new technologies for the space shuttle. When President George W. Bush decided to retire the space shuttle, the Pentagon took over the program and shrouded its development in secrecy.
The Pentagon won’t say how much it has spent on the space plane or what its
ultimate purpose may be. It has been equally cryptic about when the spacecraft
would return to Earth. The space plane is designed to be launched atop an Atlas
V rocket and then land on its own at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Air Force officials also deflected questions about using the X-37 for
military missions, saying that the spacecraft is simply a way to test new
technologies, such as satellite sensors and components.
“It wouldn’t be in the defense budget if it didn’t have defense capabilities,” said Pike of Globalsecurity.com. “The idea of a small-winged vehicle that can go into orbit and perform military missions has been around for half a century.”
Analysts said the program seems similar to the 1960s effort by the Air Force
to develop the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a reusable space plane that could be used to
knock out foreign satellites as well as conduct reconnaissance and bombing
missions. After numerous problems, it was canceled in 1963.
Air Force Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37 systems program director, said the space
plane has no offensive capabilities and he did not want to speculate about its
future capabilities. For now he just wants to see it fly.
One thing is certain. Built by Boeing Co.’s advanced research lab, Phantom Works, in Huntington Beach, Calif., the X-37 would be the first U.S. unmanned spacecraft to be launched into space and land on its own.
If the X-37 does make a successful reentry and touch down, it will mark another first. The 15,000-foot landing strip at Vandenberg was built to accommodate the space shuttle but was never used for it.
The Air Force already has an order for another X-37 from Boeing, Giese said. The second flight could take place in 2011, but he said “much of that depends on the initial test program.”
21 April 2010
Small unmanned spacecraft is set for launch
The Air Force hasn’t revealed much about its X-37 pilotless space plane, fueling speculation that it’s being developed for military purposes
By William Hennigan
Los Angeles Times
It may seem like a harmless, miniature version of the
space shuttle, but some industry analysts are wondering if the secretive
robotic spacecraft set to launch Thursday from Cape Canaveral has a more
19 April 2010